COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Ron Miller, who started the NCAA fencing program at the University of North Carolina and was its head coach for more than 50 years, died overnight. He was 78.
Miller’s impact on the fencing world was profound and everlasting, both within and beyond the boundaries of the University of North Carolina. Over the course of his 52-year career, Miller’s teams recorded an impressive record of 1,602 wins — a testament to his exceptional coaching skill and indomitable spirit.
As Miller’s career at Carolina continued, some compared him to legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith. When Smith retired in 1997, Miller became the longest-tenured coach at Carolina across all sports.
It’s a feat made more remarkable when you consider that fencing wasn’t even an NCAA sport at Carolina when Miller showed up.
Fencing had been a club sport at the university for a century when, in 1967, the chairman of the physical education department hired Miller with an eye toward the NCAA. Miller was told that, “If you do well, I’ll find a way to help you go varsity,” according to this article on the Carolina website.
Miller told the 25 people who showed up for that first tryout that, “this is the way it is going to be. We are going to earn varsity status, so you are going to act like a varsity team. We are going to practice. We are going to work hard. We are going to do everything we have to do to make this happen. How many of you want to stay?”
Three people put up their hands, Miller remembered. “The rest left.”
Miller started recruiting wherever he could — from the students taking fencing for PE credit to young people playing pickup basketball games. The team he built finished the season 8-1 and won the Southeast Collegiate Fencing Conference.
In the 1970-71 season, the team’s ascension to varsity was complete. Carolina began sponsoring fencing teams to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where they have remained a dominant force on the strip — and in the classroom (Miller’s teams never had a GPA lower than 3.0).
At the 2022 Summer Nationals in Minneapolis, Miller was inducted into the USA Fencing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023 after being chosen for the honor by his peers within fencing. The legendary coach was in attendance to accept his honor, presented by Matt Jednak, who succeeded Miller as UNC coach when Miller retired after the 2018-19 season.
In a poignant speech at the event, Jednak remembers being a student at UNC when Miller suggested he take a course called Fencing II, which covered how to give and take a lesson.
“At the time, it didn't seem like much. You know, I was learning a new skill, and I was getting better at it,” Jednak remembered. “But looking back at it now as a coach myself, I see this interaction was powerful. As coaches, we create these moments and use our influence at the right time.
“My story is not unique, but it's important, because it set me on a path that I'm on today. I've taken the baton from him, and I find myself using these ideals and values as a coach to interact with the next generation of Carolina fencing.”
As he accepted the award that evening, Miller allotted most of his time to recognizing others — especially his fellow coaches.
“I followed your example,” he said. “I have watched you do your craft and your work. And I've taken things from that. I've not stolen your material, but I have adapted it and used it to help my athletes and to develop the sport of fencing.”
He also created his own shining example, and the coach took time to reflect on just how many lives he touched in his career.
“Over 52 years of coaching at Carolina, I taught fencing classes for 42 of those years,” he said. “I taught between six and eight classes a semester with 40 students in every class. Over my years as a coach on the team, my teams averaged from about 20 to about 70 athletes per year.”
Add those student-athletes to the fencers he coaches at clubs, at tournaments, at camps and everywhere else, and the impact is massive.
“It’s probably close to 40,000 or 50,000 people,” Miller said. “This is the joy of my life, to be able to give back to promote our sport, to show how important it is to the daily life of everyone that they can learn to be a better person, learn to be more effective in their communications with others — in their ability to find joy and success in their life. Fencing is life.”
Ron Miller and Matt Jednak at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2022 in Minneapolis
Born Oct. 7, 1944, Miller began his fencing career in 1960.
At high school in Gulfport, Fla., he competed in basketball, football, wrestling and track — not fencing. That fifth sport was something he did with a friend, practicing at the local YMCA.
That friend became an NCAA fencer at Georgia Tech. Miller stopped fencing when he went to Florida State University, where he graduated with a bachelor's in exercise science in 1966.
At grad school at Eastern Kentucky University, Miller felt the urge to fence again.
“I put up a sign in the gym asking anybody who wanted to fence to show up,” Miller told UNC.edu. “One hundred people showed up, and 40 of them bought equipment and stuck with it.”
Miller and some of his fellow fencers signed up for a USA Fencing (then the U.S. Fencing Association) tournament in Kentucky. Many of them, including Miller, did well. Until that point, Miller had always assumed he’d coach track or wrestling. But after that eye-opening tournament, he saw the role of fencing coach as a viable Plan C.
Weeks later, at a job fair, Miller ran into one of his Florida State professors. That professor remembered a kinesiology paper Miller had written on fencing.
“On the strength of that paper, he recommended me for the job at Carolina,” Miller told UNC.edu.
During his tenure at UNC, Miller founded the Carolina Fencing Club, an initiative that helped bring fencing to a wider audience on campus. He also served as a member of the NCAA Fencing Committee, chair of the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Fencing Committee three times, and NCAA Regional Chair for MAS Qualifying events, highlighting his devotion to the growth of the sport on a national level.
In addition to his success as a collegiate coach, Miller was an influential figure in fostering young talent. He served as the director of the U.S. Fencing National Junior Elite Training Program, nurturing the skills of upcoming athletes and helping to maintain the United States' strong standing in global fencing.
His immense contribution to fencing was recognized through numerous accolades, including being named NCAA Fencing Coach of the Year in 1983 and 1986. In 2017, he received both the Jack Baker Award for Service to USA Fencing and the Priceless Gem Honoree Award, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the University of North Carolina.
Beyond the accolades and achievements, Miller will be remembered for his passion, dedication and unwavering commitment to his students. His legacy will endure in the generations of fencers and coaches he has influenced.
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